Why Democrats need Hillary Clinton in 2016

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Several prominent Democrats, including Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, California Gov. Jerry Brown and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) have expressed reservations about an "inevitable" Hillary Clinton nomination for president in 2016. They imply that the absence of a vigorous nomination battle could undermine Democratic prospects for a third presidential term. The primary struggle between Clinton and Barack Obama in 2008, Reid said, was "an extremely healthy process. ... I think it was wonderful. People learned about these two people."

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Such reservations represent a profound misreading of American electoral history. A spirited nomination struggle may be healthy for the out party, but it portends near certain defeat for the party holding the White House. A Clinton candidacy that quickly sweeps away the opposition represents the Democrats' best hope for victory in 2016.

This verdict is based on "The Keys to the White House," a prediction system that I developed in collaboration with Vladimir Keilis-Borok, founder of the International Institute of Earthquake Prediction Theory and Mathematical Geophysics.

Retrospectively, the Keys model accounts for the popular vote winner of every American presidential election since 1860. Prospectively, it has correctly forecast the popular-vote winner of all eight presidential elections from 1984 to 2012, usually months or even years prior to Election Day. Since 1892, with the single exception of the controversial election of 2000, the popular-vote winner has also prevailed in the Electoral College.

The Keys are 13 diagnostic questions that are stated as propositions that favor reelection of the incumbent party. When five or fewer of these propositions are false or turned against the party holding the White House, that party wins another term in office. When six or more are false, the challenging party wins.

Currently the Democrats have lost four of the six keys that would forecast their defeat in 2016. These include the following:

  • Obama cannot run again in 2016, costing the party Incumbency Key 3.
  • The administration has not achieved major policy change comparable to the first-term healthcare bill, dropping Policy Change Key 7.
  • The administration's failure to gain a major foreign policy achievement topples the Foreign/Military Success Key 11.
  • No prospective Democratic nominee, including Clinton, matches the charisma of Obama in 2008, forfeiting the Incumbent Charisma/Hero Key 12.

An inevitable Clinton nomination represents the Democrats' only chance to avoid losing a crucial fifth key, Incumbent Party Contest Key 2. The loss of this key would eliminate the party's one key margin of safety. Instead, with five keys down, any additional setback such as major losses in the House midterm elections (Key 1), an election-year recession (Key 5), a significant presidential scandal (Key 9) or foreign policy failure (Key 10) would spell defeat for the Democrats in 2016.

Among all keys, the Incumbent Party Contest Key is the single-best predictor of presidential election results. Since 1860, in only four of 27 elections has a relatively uncontested nominee lost the popular vote — Herbert Hoover in 1932, Richard Nixon in 1960, George H.W. Bush in 1992 and John McCain in 2008 — for a win rate of 85 percent. In only one of 12 elections has the winner of a contested incumbent party nominee won the popular vote: James Garfield in 1880, for a loss rate of 92 percent. Since World War II, nomination battles that extended seriously beyond the early primaries have augured defeat for incumbent parties in 1952, 1968, 1976 and 1980. Arguably Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) nomination in 2008 could also be considered contested, although he ultimately won the great majority of convention delegates, adding another election to this list.

So instead of fretting about an "inevitable" Clinton nomination, Democrats who care about victory in 2016 should be saying, "Run, Hillary run." With an extraordinary 50-point polling lead over potential rivals, she is the only candidate who can secure the Incumbent Contest Key for the Democrats.

Lichtman is distinguished professor of history at American University in Washington.